L'AQUILA, Italy Thousands of people made homeless by Italy's deadliest earthquake in 30 years celebrated a somber Easter on Sunday, huddling for mass at makeshift chapels set up in tent cities and emergency shelters.
Six days after disaster struck the central city of L'Aquila and 26 surrounding towns, killing 294 people, survivors prayed for the dead and sought comfort in religion to help them rebuild shattered lives.
"It's Easter for us too, despite the tragedy and the rubble of the earthquake," L'Aquila archbishop Giuseppe Molinari told hundreds of faithful gathered for mass under a plastic tent at the main homeless camp outside the devastated city center.
"The resurrection of Christ is also the resurrection of L'Aquila," he said as people struggled to hold back tears.
Some 40,000 people lost their homes in the 6.3 magnitude quake, which hit the Abruzzo region in the early hours of Monday, catching residents in their sleep.
L'Aquila, a medieval city of 68,000, bore the brunt of the disaster and many of its buildings and centuries-old churches crumbled to the ground.
Rescue efforts virtually ended when exhausted firemen stopped searching for a possible survivor in a collapsed four-storey building on Saturday evening and said all missing people had been accounted for.
Hundreds of aftershocks have shaken the area since the quake, hampering rescue operations and terrifying residents.
EGGS FOR THE CHILDREN
In his Easter message, Pope Benedict urged survivors not to lose hope. He plans to visit the stricken zone soon.
In the 32 tent cities hosting some 18,000 homeless, priests offered communion wafers at makeshift altars and aid workers distributed brightly wrapped chocolate Easter eggs to cheer up children and their distraught families.
"Today my heart is heavy as I think about all these dead people but we must not give up hope," said Anna Lucantonio, 65, clutching a rosary in a canvas-chapel at the main L'Aquila camp.
"This rosary, a statue of the Virgin Mary and sacred water I got from my pilgrimage to Lourdes is all I took with me as the house crumbled around us. I thought that was all I really needed," she said.
Outside the tent, children played football and the bells of a surviving church could be heard in the background.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has vowed to rebuild L'Aquila in 28 months and promised his government would not abandon the people of Abruzzo, attended mass at a police academy where a state funeral for the dead was held on Friday.
"We'll do everything possible to get people out of the tents in the shortest possible time and give them a comfortable accommodation," he said on Sunday.
But in the camps, the mood was grim.
"For how long do we have to stay here? It's horrible when you can't go back home," said 86-year old Lidia Placidi, sitting outside her blue tent with two dogs her family managed to rescue.
Annachiara Gaudieri, another woman sheltering at the L'Aquila tent city, said she could not bear to go back to live in her house, even if it was possible to repair it.
"L'Aquila was known for its ancient churches and for being a university city. Now the churches have gone, and so many students were killed. There were 20,000 of them here, and those who survived have all left. It will never be the same."
Prosecutors are investigating why so many modern buildings were flattened by the quake and whether flawed construction materials were to blame for the high death toll in an area known for its seismic risk.
(Editing by Angus MacSwan)